Figure in Fast and Furious ring to be sentenced
Suspect faces up to 10 years in prison for his acknowledged role as a straw buyer
By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — A man who bought two rifles found at the scene of the fatal shooting of a federal agent north the Arizona-Mexico border will be sentenced Wednesday for his part in a gun smuggling ring targeted in the botched investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious.
Jaime Avila Jr., 25, faces up to 10 years in prison for his acknowledged role as a straw buyer for the ring that authorities say bought guns and smuggled them into Mexico for use by the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Two AK-47 variants bought by Avila from a suburban Phoenix gun store were found in the aftermath of a Dec. 14, 2010, shootout that mortally wounded Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near the Arizona border city of Nogales. The firefight was between border agents and five men who had sneaked into the country from Mexico for the purpose of robbing marijuana smugglers.
Robert Heyer, Terry's cousin and leader of a foundation that bears the agent's name, plans to speak on behalf of the Terry family at Avila's sentencing and urged a judge in court records to impose the maximum sentence.
"We believe Mr. Avila initiated a deadly domino effect when he illegally bought those weapons and then delivered them to people who would ultimately put them into the hands of Brian's killers," Heyer said in the statement.
Avila isn't charged in Terry's death. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy and dealing guns without a federal license.
U.S. District Judge James Teilborg also is scheduled on Wednesday to sentence five other men who admitted serving as straw buyers for the ring.
Federal authorities conducting the Fast and Furious investigation have faced tough criticism for allowing suspected straw gun buyers for the ring to walk away from gun shops in Arizona with weapons, rather than arrest the suspects and seize the guns there.
The investigation was launched in 2009 to catch trafficking kingpins, but agents lost track of about 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons. Authorities say the ring was believed to have supplied the Sinaloa cartel with guns. Some guns purchased by the ring were later found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States.
Mexico's drug cartels often seek out guns in the United States because gun laws in Mexico are more restrictive than in the United States.
So far, 15 of the 20 people charged in the gun case pleaded guilty to charges. Most of those who admitted guilt are straw buyers who said they falsely claimed that guns they bought were for them, when they were actually purchased for the ring. One of the ring's organizers also has pleaded guilty.
Records show a Jan. 3 trial has been set for five other alleged ring members, including a man accused of being a ring leader, two alleged recruiters and a straw buyer who is accused of illegally buying 245 guns.
Authorities brought a separate case in federal court in Tucson against five men charged with murder in Terry's death.
So far, one man has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The plea allowed Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, of El Fuerte in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, to avoid the death penalty through his plea. He could face life in prison when he's sentenced on March 1.
Authorities haven't said which member of the rip-off crew was believed to have fired the fatal shot at Terry and have declined to say whether the weapon used to kill the agent was linked to an Operation Fast and Furious purchase.
Osorio-Arellanes told investigators he raised his weapon toward the agents but didn't open fire.
Of the five men accused in Terry's killing, two are in custody. Three others remain fugitives.
The FBI says it's actively pursuing the fugitives and has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the capture of each of the three men.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press